Dozens of Camas community members gave outgoing Camas Mayor Scott Higgins a warm send-off Tuesday night at the 2018 Camas State of the Community address.
The crowd took to their feet after Higgins’ recap of Camas’ past, present and future, clapping and thanking him for his 16 years of public service, first as a Camas City Council member and, since 2011, as the city’s mayor and enthusiastic cheerleader.
“Change isn’t easy. Transitions are never easy.” Higgins told the crowd, who had gathered inside Lacamas Lake Lodge, Tuesday, Sept. 18, to hear from the mayor and Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell.
But if there is one thing Higgins has learned after years of ups and downs — including the death of his first city administrator only six months after she started the job, the recent downsizing of the Camas paper mill and years of rapid population growth in a city that Higgins, a Camas native, called “a city of 20,000 that thinks it’s a city of 4,000” — it is that Camas will continue to thrive.
“The important thing I want to do tonight is to make sure no one in this room thinks that Camas is going to change or all the sudden, if you think it’s doing good, not do good in the future,” Higgins said. “That’s ridiculous. That’s silly. This community has been special for long before I started, and it is going to stay special for long after I’m a part of it. And it’s because of the quality of people who choose to live here. That’s not changing.”
Higgins announced his surprise resignation at a city council meeting in early June, citing a strong desire to spend more time with his family, which includes a daughter in college and another daughter nearing her high school graduation date.
Higgins, a Camas High graduate and well-known supporter of the award-winning Camas Papermaker football team, started his public service in 2002, when he was elected to the Camas City Council.
When former Camas Mayor Paul Dennis resigned in June 2011 to head the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, the Camas City Council unanimously appointed Higgins, then mayor pro tem, to lead Camas. Voters elected him to his first full term as mayor in November 2011 and then again in November 2015.
The mayor said in June he wanted to stay on for a few more months and deliver the annual State of the Community address.
After Higgins’ formal departure on Sept. 30, Mayor Pro Tem Don Chaney will serve as the city’s mayor until the council appoints a new Camas leader. That person will serve as mayor until the results of the November 2019 general election have been finalized.
On Tuesday, Higgins highlighted the city’s accomplishments during his time as mayor, and made the crowd laugh with his obvious bias toward all things Camas and Papermakers.
Talking about the bright, energy efficient LED lights the city installed at its borders a few years ago, Higgins said he could say the lights were great because they saved the city money, but the real reason he loved them was because they made Camas seem special.
“You recognized when you were coming into Camas — when you were leaving the depths of Vancouver, the horrors of Washougal, the terrors of Clark County and coming to the promised land,” Higgins said, keeping a semi-straight face as the crowd cracked up.
The outgoing mayor touted the city’s ability to grow rapidly while still keeping a small-town feel with its popular First Friday events, thriving downtown business community and celebrations that draw people from across the region. Looking to the future, Higgins urged community members to realize how strong their city council members, city department heads and city staff really are, and said he hoped Camas would back council members as they try to secure property around Lacamas Lake to build a continuous recreation trail for future generations to enjoy.
“Those acquisitions are so important to our future,” Higgins said, after showing the crowd a video of where the future lake trail might be. “They are important to help our children and grandchildren be able to enjoy this land forever.”
Schools superintendent talks state funding, social-emotional health
Before Higgins’ turn at the State of the Community podium, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell spoke about the district’s past and present accomplishments and tried to give a concise explanation of an extremely convoluted topic that is likely on everyone’s minds following the recent teacher strikes throughout the county: public school funding in Washington state.
“Growth and sustainability looks different now,” Snell said, explaining that the state’s “old model” for funding K-12 public schools relied more heavily on local levies instead of state funds.
That model benefitted Camas for many years, since a growing population helped the school district pass several local levies without having to drastically increase individual property owners’ tax rates.
But, Snell said, while school districts like Camas, which could pass local levies, were thriving, other Washington school districts were not. The “new model,” meant to fulfill the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which said the state was responsible for funding public schools, seeks to make funding more equitable across Washington’s school districts.
Snell said there are several factors involved in the “new model” of funding, but that Camas could face challenges, not only because the district will have a cap on local levy funds, but also because Camas has been able to retain highly qualified and educated teachers. The state used to pay more for those types of veteran educators, but is now giving districts like Camas fewer funds to pay highly qualified teachers.
The superintendent said the recent spate of teacher strikes across Washington state were not a union versus district type of scenario, but rather the result of a legislative decision that still needs to be hammered out and adjusted.
“It’s not the end of the world right now,” Snell said of the state’s “McCleary Fix.” “But if the scenario doesn’t change, we are heading for an unsustainable model.”
Keeping a positive vibe throughout his entire State of the Community address, Snell said he loves being able to have a job that lets him interact with talented youth like the ones in the Camas school system.
“When we think about the future we’re preparing our kids for … knowing how to graph a linear function isn’t necessarily what will help them be successful after school,” Snell said, talking about the Camas district’s emphasis not just on academics, but on students’ social-emotional health. Developing a love of learning and understanding things like how to be empathetic will help students face a future where the fastest growing jobs are in areas like the service industry, and especially in healthcare, Snell said.
“We want our kids to have empathy and be service-focused not just because it will make them kind, good people, but also because it will help them be more marketable,” Snell said. “We want to engage and inspire them. We want them to want to learn. … To be lifelong learners.”